Influencer marketing, the technological equivalent to traditional word of mouth advertising, involves promoting products and services by celebrities and individuals who have influence over consumers’ purchase decisions. This influence typically comes from the actors’ expertise, popularity, or reputation. Consumers respond because they feel an affinity to the influencer and find them credible. Influencer is quickly becoming a profession category where genuine celebrities and self-made “stars”, who are famous for just being famous, are making a career of endorsing everything from beauty products to machine tools.
With an estimated 800 million people actively using Instagram each month, in addition to other social media platforms, marketers are lining up to spend vast sums of money to connect their brands with consumers through these influencers. The medium is estimated to be worth more than $1.5 billion worldwide. The Association of National Advertisers has determined that 75 percent of marketers currently work with influencers in part due to the fact that the marketing tactic has 11 times the return on investment (ROI) of traditional digital marketing.
Some recent experiences though are having an impact on the new advertising medium. As with many shiny new things that produce nearly instant sizzle, influencer marketing is experiencing the consequences of fraud brought on by a lack of transparency. Reminiscent of the introductive days of television advertising, when pictures first married with prose to create visions of products and service performances that rivaled a snake-oil salesman pitch, social media advertising seems to be intent on rivaling the worst of these historic activities. Honesty, truth and transparency, most often portrayed as essential to effective advertising, are once again coming under fire, or is it Fyre? Cynicism is quickly replacing much of the enthusiasm for celebrity word of mouth. Some critics are claiming that as much as 50 percent of influencer marketing industry performances are plagued by fraud.
Perhaps no better example of what can go wrong when famously famous people endorse an event without exercising responsible due diligence, is the now infamous Fyre Festival of 2017. Host Brian McFarland promoted an over the top, luxurious festival experience to launch his music booking mobile application. Famous celebrities lined up to accept as much as $250 thousand to advertise the promise of gourmet food, glamorous tents and villas, rock stars and a bevy of famous supermodels. Ticket buyers arrived to find the amenities woefully lacking and the promised performance stars and international models non-existent. Event attendees found themselves stranded on the far-away island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas. It was anything but an entertaining experience.
The failure was blamed on the promoter’s inability to launch an engagement, but in hindsight many consider the catastrophe nothing less than intentional fraud. With influencers receiving huge sums to promote the event, critics were quick to focus some of the responsibility on those influencers that failed to perform reasonable fact checking and investigation into the event promoter’s capabilities and credibility.
The industry was forced to initiate reforms following the debacle. Technological solutions are being implemented that will identify and recognize fake followings and fake engagements with the goal to separate fiction from reality. Harsher penalties are now in place for those who do not post the requisite full view notifications paid partnerships tags. The United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority has warned hundreds of social media influencers to comply with stricter rules and to ensure that all sponsored or paid-for content is clearly labeled. Many people believe that the influencers involved with Fyre should be held accountable for helping market what ultimately became a failed event.
In the end, consumers bear a certain level of responsibility for their victimhood. For generations we were brought up to expect that; if it looks too good to be true it probably is; don’t believe everything you hear and though a picture can be worth a thousand words those words and the pictures may not be true. With the advent of software that can place someone where they have never been, saying things they have never said, this axiom deserves an increased amount of due diligence and scrutiny.
Despite all the amazing technological advances of the past decades, personal behavior, like fashion tends to repeat itself over time. Bad actors and criminal behavior are more often encouraged, not bounded by all the shiny new advances in digital communication. The former one to one approach to connecting with an expanding audience is being amplified by the internet’s “one to many” social media environment. Consumers are being forced to relearn some life lessons and are responding to the demise of influencer transparency and credibility in this new form of advertising. In a recent global survey of consumers, Nielsen found that 83% of consumers trust the recommendations of friends and family over other advertising influencers.
In 2019 successful brands will find a way to authentically utilize the expansive amount of customer content to more successfully connect their brands with consumers.